Online shopping growth, COVID, sparks jump in store returns
ALBANY — The time-honored post-Christmas rush of gift returns is growing larger, but you might not know it by visiting your favorite mall or department store.
You would see it, though, if you stopped by Corner Gateway, a family-run printing/shipping business in Slingerlands.
“Our whole storage room was filled to the brim,” Project Manager Greg Eberle said of the volume of packages they had leading up to Christmas. And after the holidays, they were still getting lots of boxes that people dropped off in order to return unwanted gifts or other items that had come via the postal service, Amazon delivery, UPS or other shippers.
At one point, post office and UPS were stopping by twice a day rather than once to keep up with the volume.
The growth of online shopping, which has been supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic, is boosting the number of items, be they dresses, shoes, Xboxes, cookware or electronic toys, that are increasingly obtained over the internet.
And thanks to liberal return policies of retailers who don’t want to anger customers, more and more of these items are going back to the on-line stores after the holiday shopping season.
That’s posed new challenges not only to retailers but to shippers and even solid waste recyclers who face ongoing challenges due to “contaminated” boxes that people mistakenly put in their recycle bins.
Worries about the risk of COVID contamination have added another layer of complexity.
“The pandemic has forced every store to consider customer satisfaction vs the health and safety of customers and employees,” said Melissa O’Connor, president of the state Retail Council.
Some retailers have even extended the time periods in which people can return or ship items back in a nod to the growth of online purchases as well as the delays caused by shipping backups during the holiday season.
One company has tried to quantify the returns.
Optoro, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that helps retailers deal with returned items, predicts that $115 billion in goods will be returned between Thanksgiving and the end of January this year. That’s up from $100 billion last year and $94 billion in 2018.
Some of this ends up in landfills – about 5 billion pounds or the equivalent of the trash produced by 5 million Americans a year. Looked at another way, it’s 5,600 fully loaded Boeing 747s.
Transporting these returned items adds to CO2 emissions — about 15 million metric tons each year, Optoro estimates.
Waste recyclers have been dealing with the fallout from more online retailing for some time, as they take in more boxes and wrapping material.
It’s extra evident this time of year on a number of fronts including the tendency of people to erroneously put their old or discarded Christmas or holiday lights in recycling bins.
Those lights are actually not recyclable, said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of America, which provides education and other resources for recyclers and landfill operators.
“We see thousands of lights in recycling facilities,” he said, explaining that such items typically cause sorting and recycling efforts to stop while the lights are untangled and removed.
Other challenges include what Biderman termed “aspirational recycling,” in which consumers, with all the right intentions, put contaminated boxes or other items in recycling bins.
“People mix it up with jars of peanut butter and dirty diapers and that is not recyclable,” he said.
This isn’t unnoticed by local activists who are ramping up efforts to get people to purchase locally made or sourced products — which require less shipping and even packaging – and to re-use items instead of replacing them.
“It’s instant gratification,” Diana Wright, a member of People of Albany United for Safe Energy, said of online shopping with promises of next day delivery, especially from retail giant Amazon, which makes it especially easy to return items.
“Do you really need it the next day?” she asked.
Amazon, with its enormous size, and ubiquitous warehouse and delivery system, comes in for lots of criticism by environmentalists.
“We really need to put a highlight on how much trash is generated on Amazon,” she said.
“What tapes this whole system together is the concept of ‘externalized costs’ — Amazon and others can reliably make money on things like free shipping and returns and landfilling crappy schlock products because there are a whole host of costs they aren’t made to bear,” said Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff Project, which focuses on the environmental and other costs of consumerism.
“While consumers may be dazzled by low-cost shipping or free returns, we do end up footing the bill,” he added.
One answer is to buy less stuff. Another is to try and stay local.
The PAUSE group, for example, has created a Buy Local, Grown Local website to connect consumers to locally produced foods and other items.